Even In Grief, Ben Kweller Won’t Disappear Again

Dave Kemper

Even In Grief, Ben Kweller Won’t Disappear Again

Dave Kemper

The veteran pop-rocker discusses his teenage son's death, his tour commemorating the 20th anniversary of debut album Sha Sha, his memories of Strokes-era NYC, and more.

Ben Kweller has suffered an inconceivable loss. In February of this year, the singer-songwriter’s 16-year-old son, Dorian Zev Kweller, was tragically killed in a car accident. Dorian had been a musician as well — he’d even released several songs under his middle name, ZEV. Kweller had been preparing to take his oldest on a summer tour, marking something of a full-circle moment for father and son. Kweller had been Dorian’s age when multiple record labels started courting him as a budding indie-folk solo artist.

Originally from Greenville, Texas, Kweller spent the ’90s playing in the alt-grunge outfit Radish, which developed a local following in Dallas. As he came of age in the early 2000s, Kweller moved to New York and formed relationships with a whole mess of rock revivalists. Unlike scene leaders the Strokes, who melded the Velvet Underground’s downtown nonchalance with the Ramones’ hooky punk, Kweller’s shaggy, unvarnished piano-rock felt distinctly more West Coast, as if the Beach Boys developed a taste for distortion pedals, or if the Schwartzman brothers rocked a little harder in Phantom Planet/Rooney, or if early Weezer had been more irreverent.

Kweller’s debut solo album, Sha Sha, dropped in 2002 via ATO Records and featured 11 pop-forward tracks that swung between thoughtful (“Family Tree”), sweetly off-the-cuff (“Wasted & Ready”), and genuinely sincere (“Falling”). In the early-to-mid 2000s, Sha Sha created a middle ground between the Moldy Peaches’ quirk-folk and melodic alternative rock marketed to the cargo-shorts-wearing crowd (think: Guster, Pete Yorn). 

Save for one extended break, Kweller has steadily released albums since then — six in total, with 2021’s Circuit Boredom arriving nearly a decade after 2012’s Go Fly A Kite. Kweller has discussed his disappearance in plenty of interviews, and he does again in this one: Following a near-death experience, he fell into a lengthy depression and just couldn’t bring himself to record or tour. Though no one would blame him for wanting to hide away again after Dorian’s death, Kweller has made a concerted effort to keep going. By playing through his pain, Kweller finds a way to honor his son.

Earlier this year, Kweller released a Sha Sha deluxe edition, and on Nov. 4, he kicked off its 20th anniversary tour at LA’s Teragram Ballroom. Up next are dates in Minneapolis, Chicago, and back-to-back shows in New York on Nov. 18 and 19. Ahead of tour kick-off, Kweller was kind enough to sit down with me for a Zoom call, where we dug into memories around Sha Sha, being mentored by Evan Dando, witnessing Bright Eyes history, and letting music lead the way in the wake of Dorian’s loss.

Please know how incredibly sorry I am for your loss. I was thinking a lot about you and your family when I saw the news.

BEN KWELLER: Thank you so much. Yeah, he was really fucking cool. He was just starting to put out music. I had a tour back in July. It was gonna be his first tour opening for me. That was gonna be so much fun… and then he died. We were like, oh my god, do we just cancel everything? But that rewinds us back to 2013 — when I disappeared. So let’s just go there. 

Right, Dorian’s passing happened in February, just as you were about to start promoting the 20th anniversary of your solo debut album, Sha Sha. No one would have blamed you if you just… didn’t want to return to work, ever. How are the events of 2013 connected to this moment? And what have you planned in the live shows to honor Dorian’s memory?

KWELLER: In 2013 I had released an album called Go Fly A Kite. I had just started a new label, The Noise Company. We had recently moved to Austin, Texas. It was a lot of new beginnings. 

I went on tour. For an independent release, Go Fly A Kite did really well, commercially — whatever that means. It sold a bunch of records on our label, which was like, “Wow, this is fucking cool.” We put together this ambitious album artwork concept. It was this fold-out diorama that was really beautiful. The lyric book had all the guitar chords in it, so it was like a sing-along book. It was a whole interactive album art experience that got nominated for a Grammy. We went to the Grammys. Things were really on a high in the Ben Kweller universe.

Me, Liz, Dorian and Judah, we often in the wintertime go to New Mexico. We live in Texas, so when you go to the beach, it’s usually the panhandle of Florida. When you go to the mountains, it’s usually in New Mexico. We’re big road trippers. Obviously, you can fly to Colorado or fly to any beautiful beach, but we like to hop in the car. For us, we go to New Mexico. 

That winter, we went to this cute little cabin at the top of a mountain. Liz woke up in the middle of the night and was feeling really sick. She was like, “Something’s really wrong. I don’t know what’s going on.” I stood up and collapsed to the ground. Clearly, I was all fucked up. Long story short, it was carbon monoxide in our cabin. Luckily, we all got out of the cabin. We called 911 and an ambulance came. They were like, “You guys [were] 15 minutes away from not waking up.” Then we were in the hospital for two days on oxygen. It was a full-on near-death experience. We were rattled, you know.

On the drive home back to Texas, I called my booking agent and my publicist and everybody. I was just like, “Cancel everything. I’m a fucking zombie right now.” I didn’t want to leave my family, I didn’t want to work. I just was done. And it’s extra sad because things were going so good in my career. I had a big tour planned. It was the classic thing of unpredictable shit is going to happen in life, and we only have so much control. 

So, I canceled everything. I was like, I’ll just take a hiatus for a month or two. Then that turned into six months, and then a year and then a few years. Then the next thing I know, I hadn’t put out an album in five years, I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to perform. I wasn’t doing social media. I was like, “Everything is fucked.”

Luckily, I was still writing songs. For whatever reason, good old songwriting has been my best buddy ever since I was a little boy. A friend of mine, Dwight Baker, called me up. He’s a producer in Austin, and a great musician. He’s got a band called the Wind And The Wave. Dwight called me up and was like, “Hey, buddy, I know you’re totally depressed and not doing anything, but maybe it would be cool if you came over to the studio and just recorded a song for fun, no strings attached. 

So I went over and we recorded the song “Heart Attack Kid.” All of a sudden, the fire was still burning within me as an artist. That’s when I started putting together the album Circuit Boredom, which came out in 2019 or 2020, like right before the pandemic. 

When Dorian died, that’s every parent’s worst nightmare coming true. But what I decided was, I’m not going to hide and cancel everything, I’m going to look this in the face and carry on through music, which has always been there for me as my medicine of choice. That’s how you get back to July [2023]. We went on this tour, and we did a tribute for Dorian every night. 

At the same time, my debut album Sha Sha turns 20. It’s this conflict of joy and extreme sadness, which I’m realizing, as an artist, that’s the Ben Kweller sound. I’ve been doing this for so long now. I remember coming up — my early days in the band Radish, we were this little grunge band from Dallas, and we were teenagers. Everybody was looking for the next Nirvana. I was 15 years old.

When I moved to New York in the early 2000s and really became a solo artist, the Strokes were just starting. And the Moldy Peaches — we would all tour and play. It was this unplanned wave that we were all part of. I remember doing interviews back in those days, you know, and people were always like, “What’s the Ben Kweller sound?” It’s the classic thing you ask a musician, right? I’ve never really known because it’s all over the place. It’s indie rock, piano ballads, classic rock, a little bit of folk with some country music thrown in. 

But one thing that has always been a constant in my songwriting has been extreme nostalgia. I’m just a very nostalgic person, very emotional. Looking back, it’s crazy. With these life experiences that I’ve had, it’s almost like, if you believe that our souls have a purpose or predestiny or anything, it’s almost like my soul knew that I would be dealing with some of these tragedies. The voice that comes through my music is there to handle that. I don’t even know what I’m trying to say. It’s a whole tangent.

Actually, if I can confess something, I have always been fascinated by the concept of souls. So I’m with you here. I believe in it.

KWELLER: I do too. I really do. Obviously after Dorian died, it cracked me and [my wife] Liz open so wide. We’ve been reading every book under the sun just about spirituality and life after death, and the soul’s work. There is something to this whole concept of, like, we choose our parents.

I recommend reading Michael Newton’s Journey Of Souls: Case Studies Of Life Between Lives, if you haven’t.

KWELLER: Okay, I gotta check it out. My mom’s really big into angels and past life regression therapy and stuff. She’s a little guru. She does your tarot cards and astrology. Like, I grew up in that world. I was buying books on witchcraft and Wicca when I was 12 years old and hanging out in the New Age section of the bookstore. 

With the Sha Sha shows, I want to honor that milestone. It’s so many people’s favorite album. It’s definitely meaningful to me. We’re gonna play a ZEV song for sure. Building the setlist for the Sha Sha 20, it’s funny because when you build a tracklisting of an album, it’s a very different philosophy than building a setlist for a performance. Maybe you want to start the show off with a bang, but you want the album to start off peacefully. Sha Sha is a funny album. I purposely made it a little schizophrenic because I was just coming out and I wanted to have a lot of fun with, like “Here’s an acoustic song. Here’s a punk rock song. Here’s a weird, psychedelic song.” If I did it [live] from start to finish, I would be switching instruments for every song, and it would be annoying for me to get into the groove. 

We’re doing all the songs, but we’re doing them in a slightly different order. But we are opening with the opening track, “How It Should Be (Sha Sha).” Then I do have some special guests joining us in each city. New York has special guests. For LA, Alex Greenwald from Phantom Planet is going to come down for the encore, and we’re going to do “California.” Their album came out the same month. Back then, 20 years ago, we were all doing in-stores at the same time. Me and Jason Schwartzman would be on the same piano.

It’s funny that you’re technically associated with the New York 2000s scene. In terms of your sound, which I’d qualify as Beach Boys-meets-Ben Folds-meets-Rooney, you read so much more West Coast to me.

KWELLER: Musically, you’re absolutely right. I would say my sound is definitely more California. It’s like the whole Seattle thing — Alice In Chains and Nirvana were very different sounding bands. And even Pearl Jam. You know what I mean? Like, “Oh, from Seattle?” It was a music business thing. Record labels all of the sudden were looking for anyone that was coming out of there.

So true. Very apt comparison. What memories come to mind first when you think about that time in your life, in New York?

KWELLER: I remember specifically going into the studio to record Sha Sha. There was a big lead up – just me playing shows with my acoustic guitar in the Lower East Side. Once I got my record deal with ATO Records, I remember having a lot of friends over in the studio and hanging out. 

One of the artists that took me under their wing early on — because me, the Peaches, the Strokes, the Mooney Suzuki, and the Walkman were all just starting out — but there was this whole other generation. One of the artists that took me under their wing was Evan Dando from the Lemonheads, who was a legit hero of mine when I was a teenager. I would open for him at that time. I remember having him in the studio when I was recording Sha Sha. He let me borrow his electric guitar. I recorded Sha Sha with Evan’s guitar, because I didn’t even have a great electric at the time. 

I remember when Conor Oberst moved to New York, that was awesome. There was even a month where I was a member of Bright Eyes. I remember right when Conor moved to town, and we were hanging out a bunch, he was like, “Hey, will you be in Bright Eyes? I got all these shows, you could play keys and sing harmonies.” I’m like, “Fuck, yeah.”

It was wintertime. We were going to rehearse some of the songs. I was learning all the Bright Eyes material, and I went over to his apartment. There was snow outside, and he was sitting on his bed. He was like, “Dude, I just wrote this song, check it out.” I sat next to him on the bed, and he just starts singing: “I know that it is freezing/ But I think we have to walk,” which is the song “Lua.”

That’s amazing. Well, I just remember how when I was a college freshman, I made new friends because we all loved Sha Sha. We’d run around our dorm or campus screaming the lyrics, “SEX REMINDS HER OF EATING SPAGHETTI.” And now I get to finally ask you: What do the lyrics to “Wasted And Ready” mean?

KWELLER: I remember writing that song. I was in a real cult film phase where I was trying to find really funky, obscure films. There was this one called The Doom Generation. I remember watching this movie, and I had my guitar because a lot of times I’d watch movies or shows and have my guitar and strum around because, you never know, you might come up with something cool. 

There was a scene where she’s laying in bed, smoking a cigarette, and she says, “Sex reminds me of eating spaghetti.” I’m like, “Well, that’s fucked up and crazy, but I love that.” So I ended up writing the song as I’m watching this movie about these characters. One of the characters — the boyfriend of the woman — his name was X. So I’d say, “She is a slut, but X thinks it’s sexy.” A lot of people think I’m saying “her ex boyfriend.”

It’s this weird abstract [lyricism]. First verse, “forcefield super shield AA.” That’s about Alcoholics Anonymous. “Junior high love affair is OK.” I mean, a lot of that stuff is a little stream of consciousness. I just couldn’t even tell you where it came from. 

I’ve already asked Ben Folds if he’d ever consider reuniting the Bens for a 20-year event or EP. He said “I think it was probably a one-off” while adding that, at the time, you politely opted out of continuing with the Bens because you were so early in your career, which makes sense. So, may I put another bid in to reunite the Bens?

KWELLER: [The Bens were], first of all, one of the most inspiring creative experiences ever. Before the day we got together in the studio, none of us had ever really co-written with anyone. We’d always written our own songs. 

It all started because someone on a message board was like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a supergroup with Ben Folds, Ben Kweller, and Ben Lee?” And Folds called us and was like, “Hey, we should do this [to] grant their wish, just for fun.” So we got together [and] wrote and recorded four songs in three days. It could have been horrible, it could have been great. We didn’t even know. But it was such an awesome experience. I loved it so much. But it really was right at the time where I was just starting to really hit hard as Ben Kweller. There were certain, I don’t know – probably the way [Folds] worded it is correct. I was a little nervous about being the new guy in this supergroup that no one knew. But looking back, I wish that I just kept it going, because, like, fuck it, you know? I was very young and probably trying to take my own art seriously, and trying to do my own thing.

It’s not too late. I’ve now talked to two out of three Bens about it — I consider that a personal victory.

KWELLER: It would be really fun to get back together with them. I feel like me and Ben Lee had approached Folds about it. We have to refer to everyone by last name, like being in kindergarten. Maybe like a year later when I was in between album cycles, we tried to do it. And, again, timelines were just not lining up, because we’re all really busy. And all of a sudden 18 years goes by. Whaaaat?

When you were unearthing demos and B-sides for the Sha Sha reissue, how many of those tracks came from your Radish days? As I understand it, the original album had some creative overlap with Radish songs…

KWELLER: That’s a really astute question. You’re a learned woman. You know your BK history. I will say, and hopefully you’ll appreciate this, I wanted to honor the chronology of it all because I am a nerd. 

For this 20-year anniversary, I purposefully omitted any real Radish versions of those demos. I kept it to the solo Ben Kweller era of me getting that album together. There’s actually no Radish recordings because I’m still hoping to release the unreleased Radish album. I’m still trying to find the perfect fidelity tapes, the final masters that we want to put out. The album Discount Fireworx by Radish contains four songs that I ended up re-recording for Sha Sha

This is another hyper-specific observation, but upon re-listening to Sha Sha, I was struck by the Weezer-ness of the “Commerce, Tx” guitar fuzz. 

KWELLER: I mean, I definitely loved Weezer. From the time they came out, I was very much on board for the Blue Album and Pinkerton. Those are my two favorites, and then I really started making my own music. I think it’s the mixture of like Beach Boys and distortion pedals that me and Rivers [Cuomo] have a common love for. 

What’s funny is, I remember when Sha Sha came out, my booking agent called me and said, “Hey, you’re about to get a call from Rivers Cuomo. He really wants to talk to you about something.” So the phone rings and he says, “Hey, dude, it’s Rivers. I love your album, ‘Wasted & Ready’ is such a jam.” I thought it was really sweet. Like, he was really complimenting me. And I didn’t want to be like, “Well, yeah, it’s very Weezer-y.” [Laughs.

He said, “Hey, I’m managing this band [AM Radio]. I know you have a big tour coming up. If you’ll let them open for you on this tour, I’ll give you a ton of Weezer dates.” And I was like, “Okay, fine.” Like, I didn’t even have to hear them because I would love to open for Weezer. So I put this band on tour, and then the big joke is, I never got any Weezer dates! So I’ve been meaning to hit up Rivers — I’m gonna have to cash that in soon. So, Rivers, if you’re reading this, bro, it’s time to go on tour.

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